The mayor of this village in southern Belgium came to grips last week with the two problems obsessing Western Europe. He proposed to combat unemployment by using cruise missiles.
Reacting to rumors that a nearby arms depot would be shut down, Mayor Urbain Maldague offered the village as a base for the 48 missiles that Belgium is scheduled to put in place in 1985 as part of the wider NATO deployment plan.
The idea crept into the Belgian press, and throngs of journalists quickly descended upon the village last week to examine the persuasions of this 77-year-old mayor. Since 300 Belgian municipalities have declared themselves "nuclear-free zones," Maldague's apparent political complaisance was baffling.
But his intentions are more prosaic. With unemployment here 13 percent and rising, the mayor proposed to base the cruise missiles at the arms depot, but only if it continued to employ about 160 residents from Vresse and surrounding villages. In justifying his offer, the mayor insists again and again: "My aim was to preserve jobs."
But NATO officials see the Vresse affair as a possible omen. "Lots of people at NATO think something may have changed in Europe," an alliance source said. "They see it as a sign that public opinion is changing--that people realize they the missiles are coming and that now that they are coming they might as well make the best of it."
But NATO officials may be disappointed. Maldague, it is true, has a martial air about him. Villagers say that, despite his age, the tall, sturdy mayor can still shout down an opponent at public meetings and emerge victorious from political skirmishes. In his 13 years in office, he has sometimes been criticized for imperiousness--a legacy of three decades at the helm of a colonial farm in the Belgian Congo.
But Maldague is far from excited at the prospect of missile deployment. "I don't want missiles, I don't wish for missiles, but we will accept them if this can save jobs," he says.
He has not even asked NATO whether the arms depot at Sugny, five miles out of town, might be a likely spot for the missiles. And he acknowledges that his proposal "will not weigh too heavily in the final" NATO decision.
Indeed, NATO officials say Vresse is not a top prospect. The town of Florennes is the Belgian government's probable choice. So why did Maldague pursue an apparently unpleasant and futile idea? "To attract NATO's attention to our unemployment problem," he says.
Vresse-sur-Semois, deep in the Ardennes Forest, lost its main livelihood a half-century ago when its small tobacco farms withered away in the face of larger and more efficient plantations abroad. Since then, Vresse's only means of support has been tourists, mostly from affluent Flanders, who set up their recreational vehicles on the banks of the Semois River or pack the town's seven hotels.
In July and August, the town is the image of good health, with earnest hikers clutching walking sticks as they travel the shaded trails. But "once tourism is over, there's nothing left," says Huguette Vandewattyne, manager of the local grocery store. Her husband combed the region for four years before finding a job as a truck driver.
The young have deserted Vresse for big cities, leaving the town with a population of "old pensioners who live nice and quietly and stay at home," according to Vresse's priest, Rene Cambron. Says Michel Grandfils, the 27-year-old owner of the Hostellerie de la Semois, "In a few years, this place will be a desert."
For this reason, Grandfils endorses the mayor's gesture and even lends it a disarming logic. "I don't see what danger there is in having missiles," he says. "Whether they're here or 60 kilometers 40 miles away, it's the same thing. We'll all get it."
But Vandewattyne is worried at the prospect of missiles "hanging over her head," and even more worried about the economic fallout of the mayor's proposal.
"If the Americans come and settle here, they are the ones who are going to get all the jobs," she says. At the same time, adds Bernadette Lambert, the store's grocery clerk, Vresse will lose the only industry it has. "It's going to upset the tourists," she says.
The 2,100 voters in the county will decide whether to approve the mayor's initiative in a referendum that has yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, the tranquil town of Vresse has been suddenly roused to the reality of the missiles. Says one elderly resident: "We didn't know what missiles were. It's because they were talked about last week, that we talked about them a little."
As for the mayor, who had planned long ago to resign before the end of this year, he can claim to have scored a final publicity coup that may boost his fragile economy. "If my proposal did nothing else", he says, "it at least put Vresse on the map. Because it really is pretty country, you know."